After a three-year run in Sanya, the Miss World pageant is off to Warsaw for 2006. While it lasted, the partnership was hugely beneficial for the burgeoning seaside resort town, giving it both publicity and government funding.
But if the city got a big initial publicity boost from Miss World, it cannot afford to simply coast on this momentum. China's only real beach resort has work to do if it is serious about becoming competitive with other tourist hot spots in Southeast Asia like Phuket and Bali.
While Hainan Island's history as a part of China extends back 2,000 years, Sanya's only goes back two decades. Though long known for its exquisite natural beauty, the island was largely neglected economically, even after economic reform, when it was controlled by Guangdong province.
As a result, it has very little industry and minimal pollution – about three-quarters of the island is green. The coral-white sandy beaches and clear blue water at the mouth of the Sanya River only attracted official attention for their tourism potential in 1987, a few years after Hainan won provincial and special economic zone (SEZ) status. All that had existed in the area up until then was a humble fishing village.
It all grew from there, starting with mainland tour groups. The first five-star hotel opened in 1996, and international hotel chains such as Marriott and Sheraton soon followed. Today, Sanya is home to 450,000 people and tourism accounts for about 90% of economic revenue.
"Sanya is a very young destination," said Dirk De Cuyper, general manager of the Hilton Sanya Plaza, who sees great tourism potential in the resort. "I would say Sanya overall can easily compete with Phuket, Bali, Langkawi," he said. There are differences, of course – there is no surf in Sanya, for one – but "in terms of the beach, the quality of the water, hotel infrastructure, there's no problem at all."
He even draws parallels between the layout of Sanya and Phuket: Sanya's Yalong Bay, where the high-end hotels are concentrated, is the rough equivalent of the upscale Laguna area in Phuket, while Dadonghai farther down the coast is similar to Phuket's more mid-market Patong Beach.
Top of the market
But it is in high-end tourism where Sanya can grow the most. The Hilton opened on Christmas Day 2005, and rival chains like Mandarin Oriental and Ritz-Carlton are set to arrive soon in Yalong Bay. By the end of this year there will be 30 star-rated hotels, bringing with them spas – a rapidly growing business throughout Asia – and services for the MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions) industry. The auditorium the city built for Miss World, now used for exhibitions and trade shows, has since paid for itself.
It is not all international players in the luxury hotel market. The Yalong Bay Mangrove Tree Resort, a 502-room beachfront resort, is owned and operated by the Beijing-based real estate developer Anteaus Group. It was originally supposed to be run by the Four Seasons group but it was then decided that Anteaus would operate the establishment itself, so as to offer a more individualized service to guests than the international chains.
It has not been easy going up against the big boys, according to Sharon Liu, head of marketing and sales at the Mangrove Tree. "The competition in Yalong Bay is so fierce. There are so many five-star luxury hotels next door to each other," she said.
An immediate challenge for Sanya as it woos the international white- and gold-collar tourism market is simply getting its name out. Places like Bali and Boracay already have established identities; Sanya does not – at least not outside China. While promotions of it as the "Hawaii of China" may have played well on the mainland, De Cuyper sees this strategy as a mistake with the more worldy international crowd.
"It's difficult to copy such a well-established brand name as Hawaii," he said. "The key to success for Sanya is to create and promote its own identity," he said.
Accessibility is another important issue. Sanya's airport has yet to become a spoke on the international hub, meaning most overseas visitors have to be routed through Shanghai, Beijing or Guangzhou first, often at considerable inconvenience.
The island also has a long way to go before it catches up to the luxurious standards of service upheld elsewhere in the region. The government is making efforts here but it has a lot to learn, both in this field and in areas like tourism promotion. In the past promotional activities have tended to be individually-run but there are now signs of more coordination between groups.
Overall, De Cuyper is guardedly optimistic about Sanya's future. "I would say in the next three to five years it will be on par with the other destinations in the region. But there is still a bit of work to be done and you can't change things overnight."